Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s Nordic enlargement fuels row ahead of June summit

NATO has repeatedly warned Turkey that the Russian S-400 missile defense system is incompatible with other NATO weapons systems, not least the F-35, a new generation multi-role stealth fighter jet. (File/AFP)
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Updated 19 May 2022

Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s Nordic enlargement fuels row ahead of June summit

  • Ankara accuses Finland and Sweden of harboring terror groups
  • Erdogan’s personal concern is staying in power ahead of looming elections in 2023 amid a troubled economy, analyst tells Arab News

ANKARA: Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s decision to open accession talks with Finland and Sweden has sparked debate about concessions Ankara might extract to greenlight membership for the two Scandinavian countries — the biggest change in European security architecture for decades. 

Any country seeking to join NATO requires consensus approval from its 30 members, with the next NATO summit in Madrid coming in late June. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that Ankara, a NATO member since 1952 and possessing the alliance’s second largest military, does not support membership for Finland and Sweden, accusing both countries of harboring terror groups.  

Turkey has told allies that it will say no to Sweden and Finland’s NATO applications, Erdogan said in a video posted on his Twitter account on Thursday.

“This move, which has poured cold water on expectations about Finland and Sweden’s ‘historic’ accession to the military alliance, was not really a surprise,” said Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies.

Turkey has long criticized Sweden’s policy of turning a blind eye to the presence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party on its soil despite being classified as terrorist group by the US and EU.  

However, for Levin, what Erdogan wants in return has a number of possible interpretations. 

“Sweden’s policy against the PKK and its Syrian Kurdish YPG offshoot in northern Syria was an issue of concern not only for the ruling government in Turkey, but also for the national security establishment for a long time. In that respect, the disagreement over this critical issue has been a widely-shared sentiment,” he told Arab News. 

Finland and Sweden have imposed arms embargoes since 2019 over Turkey’s cross-border operation into Syria against Syrian Kurdish militants. Contacts between top Swedish officials and YPG leaders have been condemned by Ankara.

But, for Levin, there is always a domestic political dimension behind such decisions in Turkey. 

“Erdogan’s personal concern is staying in power ahead of the looming elections in 2023 amid a troubled economy,” he said. 

“Playing hardball with the West is likely to appeal (to a) domestic audience and consolidate stronger public support that needs nationalistic motivations.”

However, Levin is not convinced Turkey’s opposition to NATO enlargement will persuade Washington to approve Turkey’s request in October to buy 40 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, and approximately 80 modernization kits for its current warplanes, which the US has so far refrained from doing.

“The presence of (the) Russian-made S-400 defense system on Turkish soil renders the acquisition of the F-35 aircraft impossible because of the interoperability problems. I’m not sure that the US Congress can approve the sale of other modernization kits as well because it can be considered as a concession against Turkey’s blackmail,” he said.  

On Wednesday, Swedish Minister for Defense Peter Hultqvist held meetings with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin in Washington, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his US counterpart Antony Blinken in New York. 

Cavusoglu also held recent talks with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts in Berlin. 

“Negotiations are going on to reach a diplomatic resolution,” Levin said. 

“But, I don’t expect that Sweden (will) give some kind of public concessions on human rights that could drive the ruling Social Democrats into (a) corner ahead of the parliamentary elections in September.”

Sweden currently has six sitting Kurdish members of parliament.

“Giving up the Kurdish cause by extraditing 33 people accused of terrorism charges in Turkey will not play well with the Swedish government, as the country hosts a wide Kurdish diaspora,” Levin added.  

Turkey wants the Nordic duo to stop supporting Kurdish militant groups on their soil, to refrain from having contact with PKK members, and to lift bans on arms sales to Turkey.   

For Karol Wasilewski, director of actionable analytics at Warsaw-based agency NEOŚwiat, Turkey wants to show its NATO allies that it is dead serious when it says that its security interests, particularly its sensitivity about PKK and YPG issues, should be respected. 

“For a long time, and not without reason, Turkey has had a feeling that the approach of its allies to its security interests does not correspond to the country’s contribution to the alliance’s security,” he told Arab News.

But Wasilewski thinks that the problem will be solved with negotiations between Turkey, Sweden and Finland, with the support of the US and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. 

“Perhaps Erdogan’s statement that Turkey can’t agree on membership for countries that sanction Turkey was a signal of area where the compromise could be made,” he said.

“Turkey would definitely drive a hard bargain, but I find it very difficult to imagine that this would translate to a hard veto.

“Turkey is well aware of the benefits that Finish and Swedish membership to NATO would bring, and that blocking the enlargement would result in immense pressure from the rest of (the) member countries. And Turkey simply can’t afford a strong backlash from the West.”  

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, thinks that Turkey’s main objection to the Nordic expansion of NATO is rooted in existing PKK fundraising networks in Sweden, and Sweden’s public ties with YPG officials.  

“Following closed-door conversations, Sweden could take measures to satisfy Turkey’s sensitivities,” he told Arab News. 

Stoltenberg also made it clear that Turkey’s concerns will be addressed in a way that does not delay the membership process. 

Cagaptay thinks that there are several explanations about Erdogan’s hardline rhetoric on NATO enlargement. 

“He decided to up the ante to publicly embarrass Stockholm to get concrete steps,” Cagaptay said.  

“There is also a Russian angle, where one veto inside NATO against Nordic expansion would make Russian President Vladimir Putin extremely happy.

“On the US side, Erdogan also signals that his objection to the NATO enlargement may be lifted if Biden convinces Sen. Bob Menendez in lifting his objections against Turkish defense exports,” Cagaptay added.

The US continues its active diplomacy addressing Turkey’s objections, as US national security advisor Jake Sullivan said on Wednesday.

“Turkey’s concerns can be addressed. Finland and Sweden are working directly with Turkey. But we’re also talking to the Turks to try to help facilitate,” he said.

According to Cagaptay, this latest crisis, besides showing Turkey to be akin to a Russian ally inside NATO, has helped Erdogan to again project his global strongman image domestically. 

“At the end of the day, he will write a narrative of the political war he has waged against Europe, and will be emerging a winner of this fight,” he said.


Iran ready to swap prisoners, urges US to free jailed Iranians

Updated 17 August 2022

Iran ready to swap prisoners, urges US to free jailed Iranians

  • Iran called on President Joe Biden’s administration to “act instead of performing theatrical shows”

DUBAI: Iran is ready to swap prisoners with the United States, its foreign ministry spokesman was quoted as saying on Wednesday, calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to “act instead of performing theatrical shows.”
Tehran has sought the release of over a dozen Iranians in the United States, including seven Iranian-American dual nationals, two Iranians with permanent US residency and four Iranian citizens with no legal status in the United States.
“We are ready to swap prisoners with Washington ... The US must release jailed Iranian citizens without any conditions,” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani as saying.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that Siamak Namazi had now spent 2,500 days “wrongfully detained” in Iran and Washington was determined to secure the freedom of all Americans held by its Middle East adversary.
Kanaani spoke as Tehran and Washington sought to revive a 2015 nuclear pact after lengthy negotiations. The European Union and United States said on Tuesday they were studying Iran’s response to what the EU has called its “final” proposal to save the deal, after Tehran called on Washington to show flexibility.


Syria denies holding US journalist Tice captive

Updated 17 August 2022

Syria denies holding US journalist Tice captive

  • US is certain Tice is being held by the government of President Bashar Assad

DAMASCUS: The Syrian government on Wednesday denied holding American nationals captive, including journalist Austin Tice who was abducted a decade ago in Damascus.
It issued a statement in response to US President Jo Biden saying last week that he knows “with certainty” that Tice “has been held by the Syrian regime,” and calling on Damascus to help bring him home.
The foreign ministry denied the accusation in a statement carried by the official SANA news agency.
“The Syrian Arab Republic denies that it has kidnapped or forcibly disappeared any American citizen who entered its territory or resided in areas under its authority,” the statement said.
It said it would only accept “official dialogue or communication with the American administration if the talks are public and premised on a respect for Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.”
Tice was a freelance photojournalist working for Agence France-Presse, McClatchy News, The Washington Post, CBS and other news organizations when he disappeared after being detained at a checkpoint near Damascus on August 14, 2012.
Thirty-one years old at the time he went missing, Tice appeared blindfolded in the custody of an unidentified group of armed men in a video a month later, but there has been little news of him since.
Biden’s statement came on the tenth anniversary of Tice’s disappearance.
“There is no higher priority in my administration than the recovery and return of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad,” Biden said.
The previous administration under Donald Trump sent a White House official on a rare mission to Damascus in 2020, aiming to seek Tice’s freedom.
But that mission yielded no visible results.
In 2018, US authorities announced a $1 million reward for information that would lead to the journalist’s recovery.


Germany and Israel condemn Palestinian president’s Holocaust remarks

Updated 17 August 2022

Germany and Israel condemn Palestinian president’s Holocaust remarks

  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of committing ‘50 Holocausts’
  • His comment followed months of tension and a brief conflict this month during which 49 people were killed in Gaza

BERLIN/JERUSALEM: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz voiced disgust on Wednesday at remarks by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the German leader said diminished the importance of the Holocaust, while Israel accused Abbas of telling a “monstrous lie.”
“For us Germans in particular, any relativization of the singularity of the Holocaust is intolerable and unacceptable,” Scholz tweeted on Wednesday. “I am disgusted by the outrageous remarks made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.”
During a visit to Berlin on Tuesday, Abbas accused Israel of committing “50 Holocausts” in response to a question about the upcoming 50th anniversary of the attack on the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics by Palestinian militants.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid also condemned the comments as a “disgrace.”
“Mahmoud Abbas accusing Israel of having committed ‘50 Holocausts’ while standing on German soil is not only a moral disgrace, but a monstrous lie,” Lapid said on Twitter.
“History will never forgive him.”
Six million Jews were killed in Nazi Germany’s Holocaust.
Standing alongside Scholz, Abbas referred to a series of historical incidents in which Palestinians were killed by Israelis in the 1948 war that accompanied the creation of the state of Israel and in the years following.
“From 1947 to the present day, Israel has committed 50 massacres in Palestinian villages and cities, in Deir Yassin, Tantura, Kafr Qasim and many others, 50 massacres, 50 Holocausts,” said Abbas.
The official Palestinian news agency Wafa did not include the Holocaust comments in its report of the meeting with Scholz, and the Palestinian foreign ministry said Lapid’s comments were intended to divert attention from Israel’s “crimes.”
In a statement, the ministry said “the occupying power is not satisfied with committing these crimes on a daily and continuous basis, but also does not tolerate and rejects any talk or statements that remind the Israelis and the international community of the many crimes committed by Israel.”
Abbas’ comment followed months of tension and a brief conflict this month during which 49 people were killed in Gaza after Israel carried out a series of air strikes in response to what it said was an imminent threat from the militant Islamic Jihad group, which fired over 1,000 rockets in response.
Dozens of Palestinians have also been killed in clashes with Israeli security forces in the occupied West Bank, while there have been a number of attacks on Israelis, including an incident on Sunday when eight people were wounded on a bus carrying Jewish worshippers in Jerusalem.
Palestinians seek statehood in territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. Negotiations have been frozen since 2014.


25 dead in airstrikes, shelling in north Syria

Updated 17 August 2022

25 dead in airstrikes, shelling in north Syria

  • Turkish attacks target Assad forces and Kurdish fighters in border town

JEDDAH: At least 25 people were killed in northern Syria on Tuesday after Turkey launched airstrikes and an artillery bombardment targeting Assad regime forces and Kurdish fighters near the border town of Kobane.

The Turkish shelling began overnight, when artillery salvoes hit the town and around its edges. It continued throughout the day, and at least one child was killed.
Kurdish YPG militia fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces responded with a mortar attack on a Turkish military border post in Sanliurfa province that killed one soldier and injured four.
After the mortar attack, Turkish forces conducted retaliatory fire against targets in the Kobane area. “According to initial information in the region, 13 terrorists were neutralized. Operations in the region are continuing,” the Defense Ministry in Ankara said.

FASTFACT

Kurdish YPG militia fighters responded with a mortar attack on a Turkish military border post in Sanliurfa province that killed one soldier and injured four.

Dilvin, a shopkeeper in Kobane, said chaos broke out in the town when the shelling intensified on Tuesday. “People started running everywhere, cars everywhere, people asking about their friends and their family. Then the sounds started to build, the sounds were everywhere,” she said.
“There was so much screaming. So much fear. Now everyone is locked up at home.”
Later on Tuesday, 11 people died in Turkish airstrikes on a Syria border post run by Assad regime forces. It was not clear if the dead were Syrian government troops or Kurdish fighters.
Syrian regime forces have deployed in areas controlled by the SDF near the border with Turkey as part of agreements intended to stem cross-border offensives by Ankara targeting Kurdish forces it views as terrorists.
Turkey has launched a series of attacks since 2016 targeting Kurdish forces and Daesh, but they have rarely resulted in the deaths of Syrian regime fighters.
If regime forces are confirmed to be among those killed on Tuesday, the attack would be one of the largest escalations since Ankara and Damascus traded attacks in 2020 following a Syrian regime strike that killed 33 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern province of Idlib.
Turkey has stepped up its attacks in Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria since July, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed to obtain a green light from regional allies Iran and Russia for a fresh offensive into northern Syria.
Turkey has been hostile to Syrian leader Bashar Assad, and backed rebels calling for his removal. But last week Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu enraged the Syrian opposition by calling for reconciliation between the regime and the rebels.

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Tunisians firmly backed new constitution: final results

Updated 16 August 2022

Tunisians firmly backed new constitution: final results

  • The charter was approved by just over 2.6 million people, the board's president Farouk Bouasker told reporters
  • The referendum came a year to the day after Saied sacked the government and froze parliament in what rivals have branded a coup

TUNIS: The final results of a controversial referendum granting unchecked powers to the office of Tunisia’s President Kais Saied showed 94.6 percent of votes in favor, the electoral authority said Tuesday.
Voters overwhelmingly approved the new constitution, the electoral board said, officially announcing definitive results from the July 25 poll.
The charter was approved by just over 2.6 million people, the board’s president Farouk Bouasker told reporters.
Turnout was considered very low at 30.5 percent.
The referendum came a year to the day after Saied sacked the government and froze parliament in what rivals have branded a coup.
Despite the low turnout, Saied’s move against a system that emerged after the 2011 overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was welcomed by many Tunisians.
Many people were fed up with high inflation and unemployment, political turmoil and a system they felt had brought little improvement to their lives.
However, opposition politicians and human rights groups have warned of a return to dictatorship under the new constitution.
“The constitution comes into force with the announcement of the final results, its promulgation by the president and its publication in the official journal,” Bouasker said on Tuesday.
He said the fact that appeals against the referendum process had been rejected “confirmed the integrity and transparency of ISIE,” the North African country’s electoral commission.
Bouasker said ISIE had been subjected to “an unprecedented wave of allegations by certain political parties and civil society groups.”
The new text puts the president in command of the army, allows him to appoint a government without parliamentary approval and makes it virtually impossible to remove him from office.
He can also present draft laws to parliament, which will be obliged to give them priority.
A second chamber is created within parliament to represent the regions and counterbalance the assembly itself.
Tunisia is mired in crisis with growth of just three percent, nearly 40 percent of young people jobless and four million people out of a population of nearly 12 million in poverty.
For weeks the heavily indebted country has been negotiating a new loan with the International Monetary Fund, hoping to obtain $4 billion, and also the chance to open other avenues of foreign aid, mainly European.

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